A New Adventure Begins | Some Lessons From The Road
Two years ago, I was given an amazing opportunity.
After only five years as a teacher librarian, I was asked to serve as a teacher (librarian) on loan with the state of NC. As I often share during professional development, this position has taken me all over the state (and back again). In the last 2 years, I've visited over 80 of NC's 118 school districts. I've put over 70,000 miles on my car. I've lost six dongles. I've visited countless libraries. And I've worked with scores and scores of teachers, principals and, yes, school librarians - all of whom shared a desire to move their library programs forward for the benefit of students. What an honor it has been to be a part of that process.
I'm so proud of the work I've done over the last two years. But more than that, I'm so, so grateful for it. As much as I've been able to share at each stop along the highway, I know I've learned so much more. All of life's journeys are like that. Just as we leave a little bit of ourselves on every path we trod, so too do we take some of the path with us when we leave. We change the path. And it changes us. Which is part of the reason why I'm so elated that this wonderful chapter of my career is coming to an end. Although I've loved the work of bringing new ideas to NCs teacher librarians, so often, I'd leave a district longing for the opportunity to implement some new idea in my own library, with my own students.
Now I have that opportunity.
In two weeks, I'll be returning to the school library. This time as the librarian at New Hanover High School in Wilmington, NC. And I could not be more excited about it. In many, many ways this is a fulfillment of a dream for me. Although I've spent the entirety of my teaching career in middle school, when I was as undergraduate (and even before that) I dreamt of being a high school teacher. Incredibly, the very school where I'll be teaching this year, represented my "dream placement" as I finished up my student teaching. (But there were literally no openings for English teachers at that school at that time). And that same school is now in a period of great transition. The library is in need of a massive transformation. And the new principal there not only shares my vision for what that could/should look like, but, more importantly, he also plans to support that vision in a number of exciting ways.
But more on that later.
In the meantime, I feel like I'm still working through all of the things I've learned during my time as North Carolina's traveling librarian. Indeed, it may take years before I truly realize the impact this period has had on my thinking, my practice and on me personally. For now, though, here are a few of my big takeaways:
The single greatest factor (negatively) impacting school libraries is low expectations. We can talk about fixed schedules, personnel cuts and disappearing budgets, but to me all those rivers (and countless others) flow from this one point. In places where library programs are not up to snuff, the people who are served by those libraries have come to expect very, very little from their librarians and, in a lot of cases, those librarians are delivering just that: very little. And, perhaps there is a conversation to be had about whether or not the librarians are reacting to the expectations or the expectations are a reaction to the librarian, but to me that's a chicken vs. egg wormhole that's better left ignored. Bottom line: teachers, principals and parents need to have higher expectations of the librarians. And I want to be clear, I don't mean folks need to expect their librarians do MORE work, but rather we need to be expected to do MORE IMPORTANT work. I believe, in most cases, we'll rise to occasion. And if we don't, we need to go.
Where libraries thrive, students thrive. I've seen this over and over again. Rural, urban, rich, poor, big, small... it doesn't matter the school or the system. In places where libraries are thriving, active places where kids do more creating than consuming, those students do better. Period.
1:1/BYOD programs are game changers for libraries. In schools where every students has access to a network device all of the time, libraries are either changing drastically or rapidly dying. There is no in between. Rightfully so, students, teachers and administrators are all asking the question: why do I need to go the library when I have access to all the information I could possibly need in my pocket or backpack? Libraries that are continuing to thrive in these environments are those that are evolving from places where people go to get information and into places where the focus is on using that information to create new knowledge. Libraries that are not making this shift are becoming obsolete and are going extinct.
First impressions count. Over and over and over again, when I walked through libraries where either the principal or the librarian (or both!) are concerned about the state of things, their first comments were about how old, outdated and irrelevant that space felt. What's more, those comments often had little/nothing to do with the age of the building, the furnishing or the chipping paint. In the end, things like how the furniture was arranged (for collaborative work vs. individual, quiet reflection), the amount of student work displayed, the tone set by posted rules/regulations, the amount of noise students were allowed to make (more noise implies more life) and a clear connection between the work of the library and school-wide goals meant much, much more than the room's physical appearance. Every person who walks through the door is a potential library supporter. We cannot afford for our spaces to make bad first impressions.
Principals are the key. To everything. If nothing else, the last two years have instilled in me a new found love and respect for building level administrators. Their plates are so full, the very metaphor of the full plate is grossly inadequate. And, although I didn't agree with every principal I met, in almost every instance, their decisions were rooted in a sincere desire to do what's best for students. And in a state like NC, where principals are truly the kings and queens of their castles, where they have a great deal of autonomy when it comes to budget and staffing decisions, principals have the potential to be our greatest and most impactful allies. It's not just unfortunate that so many librarians feel that their principals "don't understand their work," it's dangerous. Because, in the end, while many of the principals I met didn't know exactly what they wanted out of a library program, they knew what they didn't want. And they did not hesitate when it came to making changes. As librarians, I am utterly convinced that we must, must, must do more to build bridges between ourselves and not just our principals, but with administrators in general. We need to submit articles for publications in journals read by principals. We need to participate in Twitter chats aimed at principals (thank you for this idea, Nikki D Robertson). We need to conduct district level PD for our home grown admins. And we need to apply to present at principal focused conferences. Trust me, it's a very short journey between one principal stating that libraries are outdate instructional dinosaurs and that he/she was able to use those funds to greater effect in another area of the school, to an entire district, region or state without libraries/librarians. Principals are the key. To everything.
And finally, this last take away is about me personally. I'm not suited to life on the road. Don't get me wrong, I love traveling. I love going to state conferences or consulting with districts from around the country or indeed the world, but leaving on Sunday night and not returning home again until Friday night is a younger librarian's game. Plus, I miss working with kids. Working with adults is so satisfying. And I will continue to do that in lots of different ways. But working with students is my first love. And, I'll be honest, I miss it.
So... in the days to come I'm sure I'll be sharing the missteps and (hopefully more!) successes of the next chapter in my journey. As I said, our library is ready for a transformation. Luckily, I'm ready to do some transforming! In the meantime, though, I want to finally, and publicly, say thank you to Neill Kimrey who called me up one day and offered me a job. To my dear friend and daily inspiration Jennifer Northrup whose life is about to grow immeasurably simpler now that she'll no longer be responsible for making sure my head is screwed on straight, to all the other members of the NCDPI/DTL team who helped me learn and grow over the last two years and to the many, many, MANY educators in NC who invited me to be a part of moving their districts and schools forward. It has been an honor and a privilege. Thank you. Onward and upward!